While Indian football enjoyed its ebbs and flows, one thing we have struggled with is fan involvement. While the Kolkata Giants and the North East sides have had the luck of having a passionate fan base most teams while playing in the National Football League/I League days haven’t shared the same luck. The lack of proper marketing and fan engagement programs hurt the growth of football fan culture in the country. When the Goan clubs of Dempo, Salgaocar, Churchill Brothers and Sporting Club de Goa were dominating the league and was putting Goan football on the map, they could only manage an average attendance of around 3,000. With the advent of the ISL, the fans have found new vigour and are flocking the stadiums, following their sides to away games, something that seemed quite the fantasy for Indian football even 10 years ago. To draw a parallel, FC Goa has had an average attendance of almost 16,000 during the 2018/19 season. As the popularity of the Indian Super League soared, so did the fan engagement programs, leading to the formation of multiple fan clubs, West Block Blues, Manjapadda, Gaur Army, the Juggernauts. We will see the Mariners Base Camp – Ultras of Mohun Bagan make their debut in the league this season and they could be joined by the East Bengal Ultras if East Bengal’s bid to join the ISL is approved. Even the Indian National Side has now got the Blue Pilgrims, and all these seemed like a distant dream a few years back. As we head towards the 2020/21 ISL season, that would be played behind closed doors because of the pandemic, let us rewind and take a look back to 5 matches in the ISL which drew in record crowd.
ATK vs Chennaiyin 16, December 2015. Attendance – 68,340
After winning the inaugural ISL season in 2014, ATK finished second in the table 2015 season and went into the two-legged semifinals against Chennaiyin with great confidence. The first leg, held at Marina Arena, Chennaiyin scored 3 goals without a reply and almost guaranteed their place in the 2015 ISL finals. ATK needed all the help they could get and they needed their fans to get behind them and Kolkata didn’t disappoint them. The fans flocked the stadium in anticipation of something special and they almost cheered their side onto a miraculous comeback. ATK needed to score 3 goals to level the scoreline on aggregate and Dejan Lekic opened the scoring for the home side halfway into the first half. Ian Hume, who was having a special season after having left the Blasters to join the Kolkata side grabbed his 11th goal of the campaign 3 minutes before the 90 and the impossible task didn’t seem so improbable anymore. ATK was up 2-0 and needed 1 more goal to enforce extra time, but Fikru Teferra came back to haunt his former team as his stoppage-time goal for Chennaiyin ensured that ATK’s fairytale comeback wouldn’t be a reality, leaving the 68 thousand odd fans at the Salt Lake Stadium disappointed.
ATK vs Mumbai City FC 12, October 2014. Attendance – 65,000
The very first game in ISL was this humdinger. ISL started its journey as a premier football competition on the 12th of October, 2014 at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata. The who’s who of the entertainment industry, pioneer industrialists and noteworthy politicians all gathered to celebrate football. And the game didn’t disappoint. Two powerhouses locked horns for the very first time and ATK were just better on the day. Fikru scored the first goal in ISL history a little past halfway into the first half. The second half some end to end action before Borja Fernandez scored an absolute screamer past Subrata Pal to double ATK’s lead. ATK added a third goal in stoppage time through Arnal Llibert and ATK went onto win their first game as well as the first game of the ISL.
Kerala Blasters vs Delhi Dynamos 18, October 2015. Attendance – 62,087
Kerala Blasters took on the Delhi Dynamos after the International break where the Indian National side was competing in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Both sides bolstered by the return of their Indian stars met at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi hoping to get a win after the restart. Gustavo dos Santos created many problems for the home side in the opening 15 mins as two his attempts on goal were thwarted away by Bywater. Pulga could have put the Blasters ahead right before half-time but his free-kick was cleared off the line by Robin Singh. CK Vineeth did manage to break the deadlock with a tap in from an Ishfaq Ahmed cutback, but the latter was offside. Richard Gadze was sent in for the Dynamos to get that all elusive goal and he almost did have an immediate impact, but his effort from the Florent Malouda through pass could only find the side netting. But Gadze wasn’t so unlucky the second time around and just 3 minutes before the end of regulation time his strike put the Dynamos ahead and Delhi were able to hold on to their 1 goal advantage to earn a hard-fought victory against the Blasters.
Kerala Blasters vs Mumbai City FC 10, October 2015. Attendance – 61,483
Kerala narrowly missed out lifting the ISL trophy in 2014 and had high hopes for their campaign in 2015. Mumbai had lost their first game to away to Pune in the Maharashtra derby 3-1, while the Blasters won their opening encounter at home against the Highlanders 3-1. Mumbai hoped the trip to Kochi would be more fruitful than the one to Pune and they started the game strongly. Sony Norde created havoc down the wings and the Kerala wing-backs who were instrumental to their success against North East struggled to cope with Mumbai’s attacking prowess. As the game progressed Kerala slowly started to find their footing but had nothing to show for it and the first half ended goalless. The second half was a more evenly contested affair but neither team posed any serious threats on the opposition’s goal. The game did liven by in the last 10 mins as Ishfaq Ahmed’s efforts to disturb the scorers was blocked by Cmovs, Sanchez Watt was too through on goal but Debjit stood big to deny the Englishman. Mumbai could have won the game too in the dying moments. Sony Norde’s impeccable cross found Frederic Piquionne but his effort was denied by the woodwork and the game ended in a goalless draw.
Kerala Blasters vs Chennaiyin 30, November 2014. Attendance- 61,323
Both Kerala and Chennaiyin went into this encounter at Kochi having suffered embarrassing 3-0 defeats at the hands of FC Goa and NorthEast United respectively. Both teams desperate for a change of fortunes went into this game seeking all 3 points. Chennaiyin started the game strongly and were creating problems for the Blasters defence and to add to Kerala’s woes David James had to be taken off because of an injury to be replaced by Sandip Nandy. Jeje tried to break the deadlock halfway into the first half but his efforts were off target and Sandip Nandy managed two more crucial interventions in the first half to ensure a nil-nil score at half time. As the second half rolled in both teams tried up the ante but strikes from Denson Devdas and Jeje were saved and didn’t trouble Nandy much, whereas the Blasters were wasteful in front of goal, most of their attempts being off-target. Bruno Pelisari introduced into the game as a second-half substitute proved to be the difference between both sides. The Chennaiyin man impeccably finished off a counter-attacking move at the 87th minute to give Chennaiyin the lead. Chennaiyin tightened their defence and saw the rest of the game through to run out 1-0 winners.